Last Monday, Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale visited UTM to give a lecture about “Truth in the Age of Trump.”
In the past, Dale has covered news regarding the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, as well as the current U.S. president Donald Trump. He began his lecture with a comparison of the two.
A common question he is asked is whether Rob Ford prepared him for Donald Trump. Dale thinks that he did. “The ability of a well-off man to convince struggling people that he is their only true champion is something they both have in common,” he said. Dale compared how both Ford and Trump made comments about not losing any voters even if they committed murder.
However, he also focused on the differences between Ford and Trump. “I think comparing Donald Trump and Rob Ford has become unfair to Ford,” he said. He remarked that although Ford was caught saying racial slurs on tape, he never “made a systematic effort to harness bigotry.”
Despite lying on several topics such as his drug use, Ford never lied as frequently as Trump. As an example, Dale mentioned how Trump lied about being “Michigan Man of the Year” in an effort to win Michigan during the election—however, that award does not exist. “He just invented the whole thing,” said Dale.
One of the things Dale learned from covering Ford and Trump is the importance of the media calling out their lies.
“We are not deviating from our core mission if we call a lie a lie. That is our core job,” emphasized Dale. He stated that if a politician is lying, then it is the media’s responsibility to fact-check the information and report on it.
Dale discussed how difficult it can be to change a narrative that is provided by a powerful person. “No matter how many stories people heard about Donald Trump’s bankruptcies, none of that was going to convince a substantial percent of the population that he was not a successful business person. This is a narrative that he managed to create over a number of years, and it is very hard to challenge.”
Similarly, there are studies that show that in 2016 Hilary Clinton was an unusually honest politician. However, there was already a powerful narrative in place that portrayed her as a liar and a dishonest candidate.
Dale has also learned from his experience as a journalist just how serious a “trust crisis” can be for the media. He said that most of the recent discussion around facts and news is centred on the U.S., which is why in Canada, we feel a “moral superiority.” However, when the Toronto Star first published the news about Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine, no one believed the story.
“We lost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of subscriptions from people who were angry that we had reported something they thought was not true.” He also added that this came not from people who did not like Toronto Star, but rather from its regular readers. “People for various reasons, are simply much more skeptical than they used to be,” he said.
What reporters can do about this issue, as Dale explained, is to call out nonsense. “If we want people to trust us, we have to level with them.” He stated that this does not mean that they should insert their own opinions, but rather that journalists should relay the facts and tell people the truth.
Dale mentioned that he gets a lot of hate from Trump supporters for fact-checking. However, at the same time, he also gets a lot of support from people who appreciate it. The purpose of fact-checking, he said, is not to sway the election or convince hardcore Trump supporters not to vote for him. Rather, it’s to persuade the thousands of people who may be undecided.
“This election was decided by less than one percent of the vote in three states. That’s 50,000 people flipping his way instead of Hilary Clinton’s. I don’t think we have to convince the entire population of any country to believe us. If we can make 10, or five, or even one percent of the population slightly more knowledgeable, then we can make a real difference.”